Ok For Now
By Gary D. Schmidt
"I came over to the table to see how come it was the only lousy thing in the whole lousy room.
And right away, I knew why.
Underneath the glass was this book. A huge book. A huge, huge book. It's pages were longer than a good-size baseball bat. I'm not lying. And on the whole page, there was only one picture. Of a bird.
I couldn't take my eyes off it.
He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea. His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he were trying to turn but couldn't. His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water. The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.
This bird was falling and there wasn't a single thing in the world that cared at all."
This is the story of how you make a bully. Or how you stop one from being made. It is about the boxes we create, and how we should break them down. How if you expect a boy to be a thug, he will be that. If you expect him to do great things, he will.
Doug Swieteck’s dad lost his job, so they had to move to “stupid Marysvale” away from his friends and into a tiny house which he calls The Dump. Doug feels like everyone in town looks at him like he doesn't belong. His father drunkenly rails against his new boss and the unfairness of life, his older brother is off fighting in Vietnam, his middle brother persecutes him, and his mother with the beautiful smile smiles less and less. Doug has secrets that he is trying to hide, and, more and more, he finds himself talking like his older brother, Lucas, when Lucas is being a jerk. That is until one person trusts him. One person sees him as not just a “skinny thug.” Through this, he is introduced to the pictures in James Audubon’s Birds of America and his life is forever changed.
This book is a companion book to The Wednesday Wars, and I think that, through this book, Gary Schmidt perfected what he was trying to do with the first book. Doug is at a much lower place than Holling, and he has much further to go. He is trapped in his own pain and defensiveness. Then, he meets Lil Spicer, who trusts him with her bike, not naively, but as a test of friendship. One person believes in him. Then two: Mr. Powell, the librarian, who shows him how to draw the birds he is so enchanted by. Then, each person on his grocery delivery route. But then as soon as everything gets good, his brother is suspected of stealing, and Doug is shunned and belittled by neighbors, teachers, and classmates. He starts to do bad in school, and act out. It is amazing how, like Schmidt said with The Wednesday Wars, we behave how everyone expects us to behave. The question is who will exert more influence over Doug: those who think he is a thug who will never amount to anything, or those who see his goodness.
Doug’s relationship with the birds was incredibly powerful. I was surprised. I never liked Audubon’s birds, but it took Doug’s eyes for me to see the beauty and the terror of them. I had to keep looking back at the pictures (which were used as chapter headings) to see if the picture really showed what Doug said, and sure enough, they did. And his interpretation of the picture changed over time. Events in his life shed new light on the pictures and their meaning.
Through his new friendships and his relationship with the pictures, Doug struggles to become more than is expected of him, striving to change himself and his life. He begins to topple the cages that hold him and his family prisoner.
Schmidt writes with beautiful symmetry, rhythm, and symbolism, and we begin to see that those blurry archetypes we see are not the whole picture at all. Nameless characters become named. People realize they are wrong. Doors open, hands are extended. People try. Not everything ends up ok; the final chapter is heart-wrenchingly open ended. But again, Schmidt has written a book that is a must read for any kid who feels trapped by expectation, or any adult who has become set in their views.
I loved this book especially because Doug's attitude often reminds me of me; muttering about the stupid people in the stupid town. Seeing the worst in people because I am in a bad mood. Spreading my hurt around. Many people think that becoming a bully is something that comes from very specific circumstances, but the seed is inside all of us. I also saw myself in the townsfolk who judged Doug on the actions of his brother. I find myself writing someone off because of something I heard. This book encouraged me to open up more, and find the good in people in every moment, even if I am having a sucky day.
Damn good book, even better than Wednesday Wars, and one I will buy.
The Arctic Tern, by John Audubon (the image Doug describes above):